NPR: Archeologists Race Against Time In Warming Arctic Coasts
Author: Elizabeth Shogren, NPR
Posted: January 6, 2014

Click here for the full NPR interview with Portland State University archeologist Shelby Anderson.

Archeologists who study the people who lived in the Arctic thousands of years ago are in a race against time. Coastal settlements are being washed away by erosion, storm surges and other climate changes related to global warming. Clues to the past that were frozen intact in permafrost for thousands of years are melting and being destroyed by the elements. Archeologists are looking to climate scientists to predict where the erosion will be the fastest so they can pinpoint their research on the places that will disappear the soonest. Until now the predictions have largely been too coarse to provide much guidance. But the National Park Service is trying to change this. It's funding research that supposed to forecast the threats that more than 100 coastal national parks face from sea level rise and storm surges due to climate change.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST: From memory alloys now to the fragile historical record left by prehistoric societies. In some places, what little we know about those who came before us is being threatened by climate change.

As NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports, archeologists are racing to learn about people who lived in the Arctic thousands of years ago, before the traces of their lives disappear forever.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN, BYLINE: Portland State University archeologist Shelby Anderson is fascinated by the ancient people who lived along the coast of what is now Northwestern Alaska. They hunted whales and seals and were connected by trade routes with people as far away as Northeast Asia. Frigid temperatures preserved lots of clues of their lives: tools, houses and even animal skins. But climate change is hastening their disappearance.

SHELBY ANDERSON: It's literally taking them away out into the ocean where I can't find them.

SHOGREN: When the sea ice connects to the shore, it protects the land from big waves and flooding. Because of global warming the ice connects about two weeks later in the autumn, than it did a decade ago. This leaves the coast vulnerable during the time of year when the worst storms usually come. There's also a larger area of water that is free of ice in the summer and early fall, which translates into bigger waves and storm surges. These forces exacerbate natural erosion on this coast.

Anderson has searched stretches of the coast for settlements that her colleagues documented 20 years ago, only to conclude that they've completely washed away. She also sees the damage in real time when she's in Alaska doing field work.

Click here to listen to the full interview